17 Jul Why Relationship Change Starts With You
Ever tried to get your partner to change?
How did you try?
If you’re like many of my clients, you pointed your finger squarely in their direction whilst generously offering up your expert advice.
How was this received?
If you’re like many of my clients, it wasn’t received so well. That’s because we really can’t make our partners change.
If it’s a happy relationship you’re after, it’s important to realise that relationship change starts with you.
People don’t usually change just because they’ve been told by their partner that they need to.
Personal change is something that each of us can only do for ourselves.
Personal change starts with self reflection, which isn’t always easy to do.
This is because it’s often easier to identify faults in others than in ourselves.
Partners try to make each other change all the time, but it can be an elusive goal.
Have you noticed that the more you try to change your partner, the more he or she stays the same?
It’s frustrating when your well intentioned advice falls on deaf ears. You might also end up feeling angry, powerless, despondent, and even a little bit self-righteous.
If this is you, when you debrief with friends you might say stuff like:
“If only he could…
(be more talkative… more emotionally intelligent… more nurturing…)”
“If she could just…
(talk less… be less emotional and crazy… be more easy going…)”
Even if it’s not expressed explicitly, the underlying request is clear:
“Our relationship will be happier once my partner changes”.
If you find yourself saying (or thinking) this sort of stuff, stop it now.
You can’t control what your partner does or doesn’t do.
Focus on what you do have control of, and let go of what you don’t.
One of the first crucial tasks that any good marriage therapist must achieve is to stop partners being experts on what the other is or isn’t doing, and help them focus on themselves.
That’s because healthy relationships can only happen when each partner takes responsibility for him or herself.
But if you are hanging out for change in your partner, all hope is not lost.
You can’t change your partner, but you certainly can influence the way your partner changes.
One of the most helpful things you can do if you want to see change in your partner is to simply get out of the way.
It starts with being curious about how what you do impacts on your partner.
What do you do that assists, and what do you do that obstructs, your partner to be the person you want them to be?
Let me illustrate this with an example:
Let’s say Judy and Brad are having communication problems.
To Judy, it’s obvious why: Brad is a “bad communicator” who shuts down whenever she attempts to discuss an important issue with him.
Brad might not think it’s so obvious. He simply knows that when Judy discusses an important issue with him, it doesn’t end well.
Judy talks. Brad withdraws. Judy talks even more… faster, louder, and with increasing urgency and irritation. Brad withdraws even more.
And so on and so on…
The more Judy tries to communicate, the less Brad seems to listen.
It’s true that Brad is responsible for withdrawing. But Judy is responsible for how she communicates too.
Maybe Judy talks so much, seemingly not even stopping for a breath, that Brad feels overwhelmed…
… so he’s learned to avoid interacting.
Maybe Judy is a quick thinker, too quick for Brad, who needs more time to digest and reflect before responding…
… so he figures he may as well not even try.
Maybe Judy shoots down any of Brad’s responses which don’t match her own point of view…
… so he’s decided it’s simply easier to keep quiet.
Maybe Judy becomes overemotional when discussing issues…
… so he’s learned that discussing issues inevitably leads to dramas and tears.
Judy can’t change Brad, but she sure can change herself.
First she needs to understand how Brad experiences her when she’s communicating.
Only then can she start making the changes to herself that will, in turn, create the changes in Brad that she’s seeking.
Maybe Judy can start communicating in bite sized bits, speaking slowly, allowing heaps of time for Brad to digest what she’s saying before expecting his response, staying respectful and polite, and taking responsibility for her own heightened emotions by calling time-out when she gets too worked up.
And without once pointing her finger at Brad and telling him he needs to become a better communicator, what do you think would happen next?
I can make a pretty confident guess, because I’ve seen this exact dynamic or a variation of this theme so many times in the couples I work with:
Judy’s own change will create the very change she was wanting from Brad, when he magically becomes a better listener.
If you’re discovering that your well-intentioned advice isn’t making your partner change, change tack.
Stop pointing that finger in the direction of your partner, and start by point it squarely at yourself instead.
Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For over 20 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Contact Pamela here.